by Michael Klam
Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez was 18-years-old when Barrio Logan residents, college students, and community activists took over the plot of land that would become today’s Chicano Park. The city had a plan to bulldoze and flatten a large part of the area below the Coronado Bridge to create a California Highway Patrol sub-station. Many residents felt that city and state officials had deceived them. The land should’ve been designated for the neighborhood. The community flocked to the park. They formed a human chain around the land movers, and forced the workers and the city to stop construction. Residents began to work the land on their own. They planted cactus, magueys, flowers... the seeds of a new era, a new generation. The Chicano flag was raised to mark the grass-roots occupation of Chicano Park. “I saw people working the land with shovels,” says Chunky Sanchez, “and I thought These people are serious about what they’re doing. They want to have a park and I want to be part of this. If they need help, I’m going to help. I saw a determination in their faces. I’m still here 35 years later.”
Chunky sits on a bench in front of the park’s Kiosko. He is reminded of the struggle and perseverance that is both the park’s history and its future. “Nothing is given to us in life. You have to earn it. You have to struggle for it. And it makes you appreciate it that much more. These are the values that we have to teach our children, and that will make the difference in the future of Chicano Park.” 10-year-old Marcos Islas interrupts Sanchez with a greeting, “Hey, Chunky!” When asked what he will do to preserve the park, young Islas says, “The walls say what this park is all about. We can have all this beautiful stuff. I’ll work around here, plant some plants and clean up.” Chunky gives Marcos a nod of approval: “If our young generations understand how this park was formed and why it was formed and the struggle it has taken to maintain it and keep it up... If our young generations can comprehend that, and continue the traditions, then it’s in good hands.”
Tina Camarillo is the daughter of Tommie Camarillo, chair and lead organizer of the Chicano Park Steering Committee (CPSC). The committee serves as watchdog over the park, and was formed to direct community efforts and to confront state and city authorities. Tina carries on Chicano Park traditions and willingly fights for the cause. “I grew up in the park, and I had no idea. Now that I’m older, and I see that my mother gave up her whole life struggling for Chicano Park, it makes me love the park more and respect my mom and know the value of every single thing in this park. I know. I was there day in and day out. We fought for everything.” There has been a broad range of battles, large and small, from getting the city to provide trashcans and waste removal to the 1990’s Caltrans proposal to retrofit the bridge for earthquake safety. The originally planned retrofit would have destroyed the murals. With the help of a $1.6 million TEA Grant, Caltrans is now working with local artists and the CPSC to restore and preserve the murals. The CPSC had to fight to use indigenous designs for the Kiosko. The use of the word “Atzlán” raised the hairs of some officials as a divisive term. Atzlán, or southwestern United States, was the ancestral land of the Aztecs. The officials had to be taught that when Chicanos, the descendants of the Aztecs, claimed Chicano Park, they physically and symbolically returned to Atzlán… to their home.
Currently, the CPSC could not pay the $8,000 fee to have the city close the streets for Chicano Park Day 2005. “I guess the city needs money so they’re going to charge us more than usual, but we just can’t afford it,” says Tina Camarillo. To ensure safety the committee will have security and volunteers stationed along the streets to guide traffic and help visitors. Another major, ongoing issue for all concerned with the preservation of Chicano Park is the gentrification of downtown and Logan Heights. Gentrification is the process by which poor and working-class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished by an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters. “The result from the continuing gentrification of Logan would push the community residents out, bring more commercial in, and become another Old Town with Chicano Park in the middle of it,” says Tommie Camarillo. Her daughter agrees, “It’s scary because I was born and raised here. It’s home and with all these new things going up around it, I’m sure they’re going to do everything in their power to modernize everything. And Chi-cano park’s our park. That will probably be a fight. We’ll have to fight to keep Chicano park, so that they don’t try to modernize it to their standards.”
And what about the murals? What about the images of Chicano Park that define the history of the Chicano movement in San Diego?
Muralist Victor Ochoa sits behind his desk at the MAAC Charter School in Chula Vista. His eyebrows rise up like the wings of an aguila. “GENTRIFICATION is a big word!” he booms. Ochoa quotes lines from his most recent poetry: “What you mean gentrification? / Overrun our barrios into holes / Building taco bells.” Ochoa makes no apologies for his perspective: “Just like our culture and our art is being co-opted with money, they’re doing the same thing with Logan Heights.” Recent SDSU graduate, Jose Olague sits across from Ochoa, finishing a drawing of an Aztec warrior. Ochoa is both his colleague and mentor. Olague represents the new garde, and he’s also one of the team of young painters set to work on the Chicano Park Murals. Ochoa has good news about the project: “We’re really happy to say that we’re currently working with a TEA Grant through Caltrans, a 1.6 million dollar budget to restore over twenty of the most damaged murals.” Ochoa is personally working with Salvador Barajas and Sandra Cisneros on the tech manual for the process. They are developing the latest in durability technology for the murals. Ochoa reports that the actual restoration should take around 2 years. They need to finish the tech manual and select a coordinator to oversee the mural projects. Painting should commence in the early part of next year.
“The pillars sometimes remind me of tombstones. It doesn’t mean to me that they’re dead. I respect the dead. It’s almost like an altar to the past and maybe to the future. I see it as hanging tough from this gentrification,” says Ochoa. He sees art as a weapon of solution. “Bottom line is that the issues that we’ve been dealing with are the same issues: immigration, bilingual education, police brutality, racism, our indigenous roots, farm workers. The US focuses on Iraq, but the war is right here.” The artwork of the murals teaches history, a living memoria, and memory is the enemy of oppression.
La guerra está aquí (The War Is Here) is this year’s theme for the 35th annual Chicano Park Day celebration. There will be events for the whole family, including traditional music and dance, featuring indigenous Aztec danza, contemporary music performed by Los Natives (from Minnesota), Grupo Fantasma (from Austin, Texas), Agua Dulce, Koryn Cuevas, Pound Dog, Peace x Piece, Acteal, and many more. There will be poetry readings, a classic lowrider car display, children’s activities, including performances by Fern Street Circus, and art workshops led by Victor Ochoa. Also on hand will be food, arts and crafts vendors, selling their specialties throughout Chicano Park. Also of note: Rare Chicano Park Day posters will be exhibited from April 9th until April 30th at Expressions of Mexico Gallery, located at 1122 César Chávez Parkway. The exhibition is called Chicano Park - 35 Años de Victoria, 1970-2005. The hours are Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 12:00 to 6:00 pm. Admission is free. Chicano Park Day will be held on Saturday, April 23rd from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Chicano Park is located off Interstate 5 César Chávez Parkway exit under the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.
So what is Chicano Park now? Is it the 10-year-old learning a history of struggle off the walls? Is it Tina Camarillo with 100% Chicana tattooed to her right arm, her own daughter dancing Aztec danza in traditional dress? Is it the muralist belting out hip hop revolution to inspire his artist understudies? Chunky Sanchez says, “Chicano Park Day is a celebration of life, a celebration of a takeover, a celebration of community people everywhere, and its an example of what can happen in any community if the will is strong and your endurance strong, and you are consistent in what you do in your work.” One thing is certain, the future of Chicano Park lies not only in the hands of its youth, but in the dedication of its leaders. Listen to Chunky and come join the celebration: “There is an energy here. There is a force here, guiding us in a positive direction. We must fulfill our mission in this life, and that’s to leave something for our future generations to continue bettering themselves as human beings. Chicano park is about people.”